It's the busiest time of year for Chester and Kathleen Parsons: Lambing season is in full swing. Known to most as Chet and Kate, the couple own the Parsons' Farm in Richford. They run their small-scale sheep and beef operation mainly by themselves, with limited help from family and farmhands. Now both 77 years old, the Parsons have decided this will be their last summer with animals.
The pair grew up on small Vermont family dairy farms. Kate was raised on a dairy farm in Shoreham; Chet's family farm was founded in 1919 by his grandfather William Galusha Parsons. After they inherited the Parsons' Farm, the couple milked cows until 1985, when they sold the herd and got jobs off the farm. They bought their first flock of sheep that same year, when Chet started teaching sheep management as a livestock specialist at the University of Vermont Extension.
After a lifetime of working with cows and sheep, the couple, who recently celebrated their 55th wedding anniversary, are ready to step back and would be willing to sell to the right person.
Seven Days senior multimedia producer Eva Sollberger caught up with the Parsons in their barn on a sunny spring day and talked to them about their final lambing season. She watched Kate bottle-feed some lambs and even got to feed one herself.
SEVEN DAYS: How did you hear about Chet and Kate?
EVA SOLLBERGER: Back in 2009, I made a video about a sheepshearing school at Shelburne Farms. I met Chet Parsons at this event, and he was a memorable character. He was working for UVM Extension and helping teach farmers how to shear their sheep. You can hear him singing an Australian folk song about shearing at the end of the video.
When I rewatched it recently, I thought it might be fun to pay him and his flock a visit. I love visiting lambs at this time of year — it's such a sign of spring. During my visit to the farm, Chet casually mentioned that this was their last year with animals. I was surprised to hear this and asked them a million questions about this huge change in their lives. I don't think they were prepared to answer all my questions, as many of the details are still being decided. I am just really glad I got to catch them in action.
SD: The sounds in the video are amazing.
ES: I love the chorus of the sheep's deep baas and the lambs' high-pitched bleats, mixed with the cheeps of the sparrows that roost in the barn. The sheep and lambs can recognize each other based on their calls. When I arrived, everyone was very excited and chatty. By the time I left, they were pretty used to me and ready for nap time. It was a beautiful day, and being in the barn felt cozy and safe. It is a complete sensory experience, which you get a slice of in the video.
SD: And a lamb was born right before you arrived!
ES: Yes, a ewe had a female lamb about an hour before I got there. This sheep still had her puffy winter coat because she escaped when Mary Lake, the sheepshearer, was visiting. The newborn was toddling around on her spindly legs, trying to nurse.
Tragically, this lamb was a twin whose sibling died when the mom didn't remove the sac from its head. To do all that work to keep the pregnant sheep healthy and then to lose a newborn must be very hard.
Chet referenced a humorously dark Seven Days article from 2009, "On the Lamb" by sheep farmer John O'Brien, in which the farmer lists the many ways lambs and sheep can die. Chet said this is pretty true and showed me the twine that held their pens closed. They used to tie it in a loop until a lamb managed to hang itself. Now they cut the loop for safety reasons.
SD: The Parsons work hard!
ES: I could barely keep up with Kate, who was climbing in and out of pens, bottle-feeding the lambs, and deftly dropping hay with a pitchfork. The couple are a great team, and they fed the newborn colostrum and weighed her. When Chet measured out the alfalfa pellets, the sheep went wild. They stood up on their hind legs and started banging the gates. There was a deafening barrage of baas as they demanded their treats. Then Kate and Chet dashed along the pens, dropping in buckets for the salivating sheep. I was laughing out loud — it felt like being at a rock concert with a crowd of head-banging sheep.
SD: The old family photos are wonderful.
ES: Chet and Kate dug up a treasure trove of old photos, which really help tell their story over the years. Vermont's landscape is tied to its family farms, and that has been changing for some time. Larger farms dominate the market, and smaller farms like the Parsons' are not always passed down to the younger generations. Chet and Kate have two children — their eldest son, Milton "Mit" Parsons, died in an ATV accident in 2009 at the age of 40 — and neither is able to inherit the farm. But their grandchildren were just up for a visit, and they enjoyed helping out with the newborns. Chet and Kate have worked hard with animals their entire lives, and they have certainly earned some time off.